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It’s 11:40 a.m. and the premier, a couple cabinet ministers, a federal parliamentary secretary and a mix of media and bureaucrats are all packed into the Summit Air lounge in Yellowknife. We mingle and take turns peeing, as we wait to board the government-chartered Dash-8, headed to Déline for a celebratory feast and then back the same day. Some federal bureaucrats look anxious to board, while Premier Bob McLeod and the territorial reps just look bored. You can tell who’s used to tight Ottawa schedules and who lives on Northern time. A white-haired Dene man and his black-haired wife walk in, beaming, and the quiet room erupts into cheers and a chorus of “AJ!” They’re respected elders, catching a ride home on the charter. Now we’re ready to take off.

The seating’s not arranged, but the politicians board first. We lift off and I watch the scenery change as we head northwest. The frozen landscape is densely pock-marked by circular ponds and lakes. The flight attendant walks down the aisle with our in-flight service—a tray of chocolate bars. About 45 minutes in, the frozen pools outside give way to a series of long, thin lakes, like fingernail scratches, all on the same northwest bearing as us. Across the aisle out the right-hand window, I see a vast expanse of white: Great Bear Lake. We begin our descent.

We enter Déline’s airport single-file, and shake hands with the welcoming party: Chief Leonard Kenny, several elders, some community officials and chief negotiator Danny Gaudet. The small airport is briefly packed with 30 or so people, before we head out the other door and into several trucks and vans waiting to drive us to the community arena. I jump into the back seat of a truck. The two people in the front seat, neither of whom are involved in the junket, talk back and forth like old friends just reacquainted. The radio buzzes. “Oh this is that radio I’ve heard about.” “Yeah, the LAD-1. You hear pretty funny stuff on here sometimes.” With no cellphone service, locals tune into a CB radio channel to talk back and forth, get rides to the airport, look for their friends. “You hear everything from domestic arguments to 911 calls,” says the driver. 

The press and public arrive at the community arena. Elders, wearing their beaded moosehide vests, fine tune their drums at the far side of the room. An amiable local guy named Gary shows me pictures on his iPod of skinning knives and spearheads he’s been carving out of obsidian. The politicians arrive and take their seats at the head of the room, and the ceremony begins. Déline’s self-government agreement was passed through the territory’s legislative assembly weeks before, and has now been signed by the federal, territorial and community representatives. It still needs to go through parliament, so there actually isn’t a whole lot of news to this event. It’s all ceremony and celebration, with the press brought along to further promote the historic agreement.

There are close to two hours of speeches—congratulations, reminiscences of past leaders and elders, anecdotes from the two-decade journey to today, and warnings that the work doesn’t stop here. The speeches end, we eat and then we clear the chairs and tables for the drum dances. At one point, the premier is dancing behind me, while Mark Strahl, the federal parliamentary secretary for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development is dancing further back, in between pockets of locals, politicians and bureaucrats.

Sure, it’s all symbolic. The history between the Canadian and territorial governments and the Déline people, as with other aboriginal peoples, has often been horrendous, and there are bound to be tensions and broken promises in the future. The cynic might scoff at this ceremony. But there was something redeeming about the charter trip from Yellowknife to Déline and back again: the North’s tendency to bring everyone down to the same level. The federal and territorial officials waited for the elders to show up before boarding the flight, and then they waited in line with everyone else for food; the territorial reps were the first in line to dance and the federal reps were called out if they tried to sit on the sidelines and just watch. And then everyone piled into the plane together for the charter trip back.

It’s a Northern pattern. I’ve seen successive premiers and MLAs among the after-midnight crowd on the dancefloor of the Gold Range in Yellowknife. I’ve seen locals tear a strip off popular southern rock acts, up for Folk on the Rocks, for acting like they were hot stuff. This is not to say there aren’t huge inequities in the North, a sharp divide between haves and have-nots. But there’s something to be said for a place where airs of superiority are called out, and where—unless, maybe, you’re the head of state—you’re expected to get down and dance with the rest of us plebeians.